BOOK REVIEW: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball

Beyond WeirdBeyond Weird by Philip Ball
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Quantum mechanics is so mystifying and baffling that I even misunderstood the title of Philip Ball’s book on the subject at first. I thought “Beyond Weird” was being used as is in, “twelve miles outside of Weird, almost all the way to ‘Incomprehensibly-bizarre-burg,’ is where one finds quantum theory.” About two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized that what he meant was that it’s time to move beyond thinking of the subject as one that – while it works well for the technologist’s practical purposes — is impossible to make any sense of with the human mind. [Perhaps the author wants to move “Beyond Weird” because the popular descriptions of quantum mechanics paint a picture that’s hard for the average reader to differentiate from magic – i.e. things popping in and out of existence inexplicably, things seeming to be in two irreconcilably different states at once, particles interacting instantaneously across light-years, etc. It all sounds like the stuff of a Harry Potter novel.] Who knows, maybe Ball meant “beyond weird” in both ways, like a quantum object is said to be both particle and a wave. (Though Ball weakly rejects that notion as untrue, though stating that sometimes it might as well be true.)

What is weird about the quantum world? To oversimplify, one can think of three interconnected conundrums. The first set of challenges I’ll group together as measurement problems. This includes both the fact that observing evidence of a quantum object cannot be done without influencing the nature of that evidence, and the fact that measuring one characteristic may limit the accuracy with which one can measure another. The second challenge, which derives from the first, is often called wave-particle duality, and it’s the fact that evidence of the same entity or object may sometimes suggest it’s more particle-like and other times that it behaves in a more wave-like fashion. [As is famously observed in double-slit experiments.] A third counter-intuitive fact is quantum entanglement, which is observed when one quantum object is observed and another that has become entangled with it instantaneously displays a corresponding measure. [The reader will note that, even after reading the book, I’m sure that I’m not describing these ideas in nearly sufficient precision to make them truly accurate. And still I’m writing convoluted sentences in attempt to give it my best shot to accuracy. And that’s just how confusing the topic is.]

Because the world behaves oddly at a quantum scale when compared to the world we see (the one that is governed by classical physics,) many paradigms have been established to try to convey what is happening to non-specialists. These models are necessarily oversimplifications. A lot of what Ball does is to try to wring a tiny bit more clarity out of what goes on at the quantum scale by describing in greater detail what is true, false, or under contention about what we “see” in quantum objects. This is how Ball comes up with chapter titles such as: “Quantum objects are neither wave nor particle, (but sometimes they might as well be.” Or, “Quantum particles aren’t in two states at once (but sometimes they might as well be.)” The first half of the book is mostly spent trying to clean up the public perception of quantum mechanics a little. Completely clarifying the subject isn’t yet possible. If it was, the value of such a volume would be minimal.

In the second half of the book, Ball gets into the influence of quantum mechanics on technology (and, in particular, tries to give the lay-reader some concept of what is being talked about when technologists talk of quantum computing.) He also explores some of the theories that are being pursued in the halls of academia to try to make sense of the parts of quantum mechanics that we can’t yet wrap our heads around. This includes the many-worlds interpretation in which each [“decision”] event results in a schism of the universe, such that Schrodinger’s — much misunderstood — cat isn’t in a super-position of alive and dead, but is alive in one branch universe and dead in the other. The book ends with a chapter entitled, “Can we get to the bottom of it?” There is hope that once we are able to look at the subject from the right angle, it will all clear up. Humans do have difficulty making sense of scales that are smaller or bigger than those of our daily experience, as well as time scales shorter than we can notice or longer than we live. We are viewing the world through frames, and those frames create – in a sense – blinders. Some scientists hope that one day we’ll be free of whatever frame (e.g. inability to experience all dimensions of space, time, or space-time) is limiting our capacity to understand the quantum.

As one would expect of this type of book, there are graphics, notes, and a bibliography.

My primary interest in quantum mechanics involves its implications (if any) for consciousness, and this is not a subject that Ball gets into in much detail beyond discussing Eugene Wigner’s views on the subject and touching on the ideas of David Bohm. Wigner was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who believed that consciousness caused wave-form collapse. It should be noted that there are many scientists who feel that there is no need to think consciousness exerts any influence outside the skull of the conscious one. However, it remains an open question, and it’s not clear whether those who reject it have much better ideas or just have a knee-jerk reaction to that which might halt the onward march of the Copernican revolutionary norm. Though ideas at the interaction of consciousness and the quantum are not explored in great detail in Ball’s book, I still found it of use for edging a little closer to what goes on at a quantum scale than past popular science books have gotten me.

I’d recommend this book for the non-physicist who wants a little better grasp on quantum theory. It’s readable and helps separate wheat from chaff with respect to popular models of quantum mechanics.

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